One year after the Galwan incident, it is worth analysing the lessons of this clearly avoidable tragedy in which 20 brave Indian soldiers were martyred but not before killing more than 40 Chinese soldiers. This was a tragedy caused solely by the Chinese side in their military misadventure against the Indian armed forces by challenging the sanctity of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.
Technically speaking, the standoff between the Indian and Chinese troops continues even today. But the fact remains that in this standoff, and that is the first lesson, India has stood firmly on the ground. The Chinese misadventure has not paid off. China may be way ahead of India, when measured through the economic parameters. But in military strength, in which the quality or substance matters more than quantity or numbers, India is more than capable of retaliating against China. In fact, it is now universally acknowledged that in fighting a war over the mountains, Indian armed forces, supported by credible Air power, are the best in the world. They are superior to the Chinese.
The second lesson, which is the corollary of the above, is that in Asia if any country can withstand the military challenge of China, which is increasingly becoming aggressive and hegemonistic, then it is India, particularly when there is a decisive political leadership in the country that does not believe in prolonged appeasement. In fact, this is one of the most important reasons why the other leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific region like the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea are standing with India. The increasing importance and relevance of the QUAD needs to be seen in this context.
The third lesson is that the historical nature of India-China relationship – the relationship of rivalry – for spreading their civilisational influence in the Indo-Pacific is unlikely to change in near future. In fact, with China getting obsessive with its increasingly irrational territorial claims all over the region, this rivalry will become more acute in the days to come. And that being the case, any amount of appeasements will not satisfy China’s greed.
All told, more than any Indian Prime Minister in the recent past, Narendra Modi did his best to have friendly relations with China. See the number of times he held summit-meetings with Chinese President XI Jinping. But that did not stop the latter from challenging India in Ladakh. In other words, do not take the words of platitude that emerge when the Indian and Chinese leaders meet too seriously. “Hindi-Chin Bhai Bhai” slogans sound nice. But they do not mean much in reality.
This is not to say that the two counties should be in war till one of them wins decisively. This is to suggest that one should be prepared for war from China all the time. And therefore, while indulging diplomatically with China to avoid a war, one must verify what the Chinese say. There is no question of trusting China, given its history of changing its stance on sensitive issues effortlessly in no time. That is the fourth lesson.
The fifth lesson is that Chinese aggressive designs in Ladakh and actions in Galwan should not be seen in isolation. China is now fighting many countries in many ways at many levels. The intensity may not be the same in all these fights, but unmistakably there are fights. China has challenged the United States in South China Sea and East China Sea by interfering with its surveillance activities. It is aggravating territorial disputes by displaying muscular behaviour in East China sea with Japan and in South China Sea with Vietnam and the Philippines. It has intruded into Taiwan’s air space many a time in the recent past. It is on the course of a violent takeover the governance of Hong Kong by abandoning its earlier commitment to the principle of “one country, two systems”. It has threatened Australia by cutting back imports from that country just because it raised questions on China’s handling of the Covid-19 virus. China is now claiming internationally that it is no less than the United States in power and reach and abandoning the conservative and low-profile approach to foreign affairs that characterized the years of its so-called “four modernisations”.
This being the case, and this is the sixth lesson, it will be wrong to agree with some analysts who say that standoff in Ladakh should not be compared with the incidents above because it is a localised incident that occurred without the approval of the Chinese top leadership in Beijing. They say that this is the reason why the Chinese leadership has totally underplayed the Ladakh-incidents by totally banning any detailed coverage in China’s mainstream papers( controlling press is very easy in a totalitarian country like China). Chinese reactions have been limited only to party’s English paper “Global Times”, meant for foreign audience.
These analysts say that Ladakh incidents, including the clash at Galwan, happened because of Gen. Zhao Zongqi, who was promoted to the rank of a General in 2015 and made the Commanding officer of the Western Theatre Command (Tibet came under him). He has been said to be traditionally anti-India, and therefore, he might have exceeded his brief set by the central leadership. But then the fact remains that the PLA is strongly under the control of Chinese Communist party and Zhao himself is a member of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. And most importantly, PLA reports to none other than President Xi himself.
In a large and diverse country such as China, one bureaucratic apparatus (PLA) will not be allowed to overcome the resistance of others, particularly when the bureaucratic elites of a country invariably prefer status quo. Hence there is unlikely to be any easy or smooth policy-change, particularly when it pertains to wars. In other words, the party leaders in general and Xi in particular, remain firmly in charge, and the Ladakh incidents would have occurred without Xi’s consent.
And that brings us to the seventh lesson, which is that President Xi Jinping is in a great hurry to cement his place in the Chinese history as the country’s greatest and most powerful ruler ever. He wants China to be the sole super power of the world. He wants to establish a literally a modern China-empire and thus complete the “national rejuvenation” in his life time, much earlier than the slated time marked by centenary of Communist China’s founding in 2049.
It is equally wrong to assume that Xi is doing all this because of some underplayed elite-competition within. As the Communist Party head in 2012 and President of China the next year, Xi is the supreme leader of the country, particularly after he abolished the term-limits for top posts, allowing him and others chosen by him to continue beyond the accepted retirement age.
Xi does not have potent enemy now in China. He has further centralised power and authority in the post-Covid period. Since Xi has largely succeeded in rewriting the narrative in China, Chinese foreign policy and military postures are strictly under him. Xi seems confident at the moment that he can exploit the window of opportunity to ratchet up military build-up, extend the nation’s interests and expand China’s geopolitical reach.
It may be noted that during his report to the 19th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October 2017, Xi had outlined China’s new international role, stating that: “the Chinese nation … has stood up, grown rich, and become strong – and it now embraces the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation … It will be an era that sees China moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind.” He further described the PRC a, “mighty force” in international affairs and emphasized that the Chinese military: “must regard combat capability as the criterion to meet in all its work, and focus on how to win when it is called on.”
Xi has his “Chinese Dream”. And this dream causes collateral damages for not only India but also the rest of the world. Thwarting his dream requires enormous economic and military resources, which India can ill-afford at the moment. But then, since this dream challenges others as well, particularly the democracies in the Indo-Pacific, India must have to cement a strong alliance with them so as to meet the challenge together. QUAD, therefore, needs to be strengthened manifold – that is the eighth lesson.